I’m not a girl given to bragging, but I didn’t do too poorly in law school and I’ve managed to make a rather nice living swimming with the big sharks in the grown-up pool, taking on “billions-with-a-b” cases. I pulled A’s in a lot of law school classes, but the class in which I did my absolute best was Negotiations 101.
Of course, unlike our President, I didn’t go to Harvard Law School and I was only assistant editor, not editor, of Law Review. I’ve never taught ConLaw and I’ve never held elective office. But I have had cause to wonder, more than once, if Mr. Obama may not have been busy doing something else on the day they taught Negotiating 101 at HLS.
For most of his presidency, he’s shown a disappointing tendency to engage in a practice that lawyers call “negotiating against” himself. He stakes out a position — generally one that’s already far to the right of what his followers want — and then, without obtaining any concessions in return, simply volunteers to move closer to the Rapeublican position. More than once. Sometimes, even after he’s won, he’ll change a program to make it more palatable to the other side. (There may, in our history, have been Congresses with which this policy would have worked. But Mr. Obama came to town with a Congress radicalized by conservative ideas, animated by a deep racial hatred of the President, and convinced that compromise of any sort is a sign of weakness. With this Congress, Mr. Obama’s negotiating strategies have been disastrous. They simply believe, generally with good reason, that, eventually, he’ll cave to them.)
Of course, Mr. Obama will go down in history as our first African American President and that’s quite an accomplishment. Thanks to his willingness to run, G/Son has essentially grown up knowing only an African American President and his generation will likely accept as given that race plays no role in who may lead our country.
But, sadly, other than a health-care law that seriously disappoints his base (which would have preferred a clean, single-payer program), and having caught Osama bin Laden (whom George Bush never found), Mr. Obama can claim few important achievements beyond his election. (If Syria’s chemical weapons can be destroyed without war, that will be an achievement, although perhaps more due to Mr. Putin than Mr. Obama.)
So it’s been interesting to me to watch Mr. Obama finally begin to develop a spine (which, Goddess knows, may still turn to jelly at any moment) over the Rapeublicans’ most recent, desperate attempt to defund Mr. Obama’s health-care initiative.
First, let’s be clear. This law was passed legally and was upheld by our currently-conservative Supreme Court. The Rapeublicans made getting rid of the law the centerpiece of their 2012 election campaign and they lost — badly. So the “will of the people” has been pretty well expressed. (Even polls that show some dissatisfaction with the law often fail to distinguish between those who hate the idea of everyone getting health insurance and those who hate the idea of insurance companies getting a big bite out of the pie.) Second, let’s also be clear, the Rapeublicans are willing to attempt the desperate and unpopular gambit of shutting down the government to eliminate the health care law because they know that once millions of Americans can get insurance, once people with “pre-existing” conditions can’t be denied insurance, once parents can keep their college-age children on their insurance, once insurance companies have to spend at least 80% of what they take in on actual services, well then, it’s all over but the shouting. Americans will never agree to surrender those benefits. Nor should they. Every other developed country in the world manages to provide health care for its citizens and there’s no reason why the richest country on Earth shouldn’t do so, as well.
So, I’m an old woman who didn’t go to HLS and wouldn’t presume to imagine that I could lead the United States. But I’ll still, as someone who’s actually been in the field, practiced law, and successfully negotiated good outcomes for my clients, presume to give Mr. Obama some advice.
If I were sitting today where you sit, Mr. Obama, almost at the confluence of the Anacostia River, the Washington Chanel, and the Potomac River, here’s what I’d do:
I’d announce that, now that the government’s been closed for two days, I’m unwilling to sign anything but a clean bill to fund the government, except that now I also want the Rapeublicans to approve all of my judicial nominees who have been languishing in Congress lo these many years.
Tomorrow morning, I’d eat breakfast, put on my nice suit, walk out into the Rose Garden (it’s gorgeous in DC this week) and announce that now that I’ve slept on it, I won’t sign anything except a clean bill with approval of all of my judicial nominees and statehood for DC. I’d wave to the reporters, go play golf (include a woman this time, Mr. President), review their homework with my daughters, and get a massage.
On Friday, after I had lunch at the Palm with my wife (have the crabmeat cocktail and the steak salad, rare), I’d walk up to Dupont Circle and say that I’d been discussing it with Ms. Obama and, now, I’m unwilling to sign anything except a clean bill with approval of all of my judicial appointees, statehood for DC, and a new bill of Elizabeth Warren’s choosing.
I’d take the weekend off, go to Camp David, let the girls and the dogs run around and enjoy Indian Summer in Maryland, have dinner with some crazy, wild-eyed liberals, and make sure the press knew who they were and what we ate (include arugula and craft beer on the menu).
On Monday, I’d wait.
On Tuesday, I’d give a speech and announce that, having thought about it over the weekend, in the calm of Camp David, I also need a new program of really strong controls on financial markets.
You get the picture.
Right now, the only people upping the ante are the Rapeublicans. In order to “meet in the middle” and appear “reasonable” Mr. Obama has to move towards their position. That’s no way to negotiate.
Rapeublicans who are watching the polls go even further down on the notion of shutting down the government (they’ve already crossed that Rubicon — another river reference — so what the heck), need some additional motivation to move towards Mr. Obama. And they need to see that continuing to hold out will cost them even more.
Maybe, in the end, Mr. Obama shows what a reasonable guy he is by compromising on a new bill of Elizabeth Warren’s choosing and half of his judicial appointees. That’s how negotiations work.
Mr. President, What Have You Got to Lose?